So, two Neal Stephenson books have really been significant mirrors to my experiences. Snow Crash is what I wanted to be, a talented drifter, solo programmer (hey I’m good at that), swordsman (I was never more than adequate for an amateur and now I’m not even that), weird West Coast solo fish who fits nowhere.
Cryptonomicon came out in ’99, when I was somewhere between Avi’s avarice and Randy’s nerdery. I think I’ve recovered almost entirely, but there was a time when serial entrepeneur seemed like a good idea. Ugh.
I implemented the card crypto system in Java after it got errata’d, it’s a handy emergency backup offline crypto system but you probably don’t have anything offline anymore, and passing around a one-time pad is easier.
I reread it once in 2005-ish, and it held up but was even then being overtaken by reality.
It’s so svelte and non-discursive by Stephenson’s later standards! Hardly more than 2 novellas and a dissertation mashed together. I only made it thru Quicksilver of the next 4, like dying on the bunny slopes of a mountain. Someone else can go on to the summit.
Anathem is back to merely Cryptonomicon size & density, very nice. REAMDE is 2 novellas mashed together, one of which I liked. SevenEves is 3 increasingly stupid books in one; the third book breaks the Stupidity Event Horizon, no intelligence can escape it. I hear less bad things of Fall, so it’s on my tsundoku.
Shit Neal Says In Every Book
Do not play this as a drinking game, you will die.
- Douglas MacArthur
- esprit de corps
- Vickers/REASON: “The Vickers was water-cooled. It actually had a fucking radiator on it. It had infrastructure, just like the bandsaw, and a whole crew of technicians to fuss over it.”
- Zodiac motorboat
There’s two fake islands, Qwghlm based on the Hebrides, and Kinakuta based on Banggi Island.
Qwghlm is cold, bitterly inhospitable, a barren rock nobody could really live on. So they’re incredibly conservative, isolated, delusionally proud, can’t even communicate with each other let alone outsiders.
Kinakuta is a warm island with abundant natural resources, a long melting pot history, speak a mix of every language in the region, and immediately willing to adapt to change and seize opportunities.
Neal’s not subtle about his political messaging.
Does not use vowels, but can be implied by consonants.
- Mnyrrgh = Moore
- Qwlghm = Tagyum, Neal says “Taggum” in Quicksilver
- Skrrgh = Skerry
- cCmndhd = Smith
- Gxxn bhldh sqrd m! = indecipherable
Quotes & Responses
“Rudy—take this stick, here—that’s right—and keep a close eye on Lawrence, and
when he gets that foggy look on his face, poke him with it!”
“Zis is not an English school, you can’t do zese kind of sing.”
Which really proves that French is just bad German, because they translate to the same insulting caricature/”ootrazeous franch awksent”.
I guess Rudy’s German, not Austrian, so his schooling might be strict but not as cruel as the English; an Austrian would think a poking stick too merciful. Add some whips and knots to it.
it would be obvious, even if Randy didn’t know it, that Avi owns a portable
e-mail[sic] machine that talks to the Internet by radio.
Even in 1999, that was laying it on a bit thick, what nerd didn’t have a Pilot or some such?
“A couple of bellhops are engaged in a pathetic, Sisyphean contest with his
bag, which has roughly the dimensions and mass of a two-drawer filing cabinet.
“You will not be able to find technical books there,” Avi told him, “bring
anything you might conceivably need.”
This, and the constant traveller experience, are familiar from my late ’90s/early ’00s. Dead tree technical books sucked. And yet they’re better than what we have now, which is StackUnderflow and trying to find anything in bad online documentation, so I mostly end up digging in source when all else fails.
Tho also if you’re in America, very few hotels have bellhops anymore. I bought my first roller-bag around this time. Then carrying around 20-50 pounds of tomes was no longer literally back-breaking.
Before they knew it, Randy had given Charlene a key to his apartment, and
Charlene had given Randy the password to her free university computer account,
and everything was just delightful.
If that sentence doesn’t make you break out in hives, you are much too trusting. I mean the account, the worst that can happen with an apartment is someone kills you in your sleep.
Within a couple of months he is actually writing new chapters of the
Cryptonomicon. People speak of it as though it were a book, but it’s not. It
is basically a compilation of all of the papers and notes that have drifted up
in a particular corner of Commander Schoen’s office over the roughly two-year
period that he’s been situated at Station Hypo, as this place is called.* It
is everything that Commander Schoen knows about breaking codes, which amounts
to everything that the United States of America knows. At any moment it could
have been annihilated if a janitor had stepped into the room for a few minutes
and tidied the place up. Understanding this, Commander Schoen’s colleagues in
the officers’ ranks of Station Hypo have devised strenuous measures to prevent
any type of tidying or hygienic operations, of any description, in the entire
wing of the building that contains Commander Schoen’s office. They know
enough, in other words, to understand that the Cryptonomicon is terribly
important, and they have the wit to take the measures necessary to keep it
safe. Some of them actually consult it from time to time, and use its wisdom
to break Nipponese messages, or even solve whole cryptosystems. But Waterhouse
is the first guy to come along who is good enough to (at first) point out
errors in what Schoen has written, and (soon) assemble the contents of the
pile into something like an orderly work, and (eventually) add original
material onto it.
As of the middle of 1941, then, this machine existed in this vault, here at
Station Hypo. It existed because Schoen had built it. The machine perfectly
decrypted every Indigo message that the intercept stations picked up, and was,
therefore, necessarily an exact functional duplication of the Nipponese Indigo
code machine, though neither Schoen nor any other American had ever laid eyes
on one. Schoen had built the thing simply by looking at those great big long
lists of essentially random numbers, and using some process of induction to
figure it out. Somewhere along the line he had become totally debilitated
psychologically, and begun to suffer nervous breakdowns at the rate of about
one every week or two.
As of the actual outbreak of war with Nippon, Schoen is on disability, and
taking lots of drugs. Waterhouse spends as much time with Schoen as he is
allowed to, because he’s pretty sure that whatever happened inside of Schoen’s
head, between when the lists of apparently random numbers were dumped into his
lap and when he finished building his machine, is an example of a
Title of the book is finally namechecked at pg 160 (local), and the -nomicon book drives its writer/reader insane in proper Lovecraftian fashion.
The major goes back to the report. “This Reagan fellow says that you also
repeatedly made disparaging comments about General MacArthur.”
“Sir, yes, sir! He is a son of a bitch who hates the Corps, sir! He is trying
to get us all killed, sir!”
The major and the colonel look at each other. It is clear that they have,
wordlessly, just arrived at some decision.
Bobby’s insane, but he’s not wrong about Mac. Or the lizard.
One of the laptops is connected to a tiny portable printer,
which Avi loads with a few sheets of paper. The other laptop
starts up a few lines of text running across the screen, then
beeps and stops. Randy ambles over and looks at it curiously.
It is displaying a prompt:
Which Randy knows is short for Finux Loader, a program that
allows you to choose which operating system you want to run.
“Finux,” Avi mumbles, answering Randy’s unspoken question.
Randy types “Finux” and hits the return key. “How many
operating systems you have on this thing?” “Windows 95, for
games and when I need to let some lamer borrow my computer
temporarily,” Avi says. “Windows NT for office type stuff.
BeOS for hacking, and screwing around with media. Finux for
industrial-strength typesetting.” “Which one do you want now?”
“BeOS. Going to display some JPEGs. I assume there’s an
overhead projector in this place?”
Typesetting in Finux? Be serious.
It is a recipe for freezing a dead, or nearly dead, person.
People who wear this bracelet believe that, if this recipe is
followed, the brain and other delicate tissues can be iced
without destroying them. A few decades down the line, when
nanotechnology has made it possible to be immortal, they hope
to be thawed out. John Cantrell and Tom Howard believe that
there is a reasonable chance that they will still be having
conversations with each other a million years from now.
Ah, the good old days when you thought nanotech immortality was more likely than post-global warming societal collapse and cannibalistic reavers.
Eventually the information reaches Randy’s computer, which
spews noise back. The modem in Los Altos is one of half a
dozen that are all connected to the back of the same computer,
an entirely typical looking tower PC of a generic brand, which
has been running, night and day, for about eight months now.
They turned its monitor off about seven months ago because it
was just wasting electricity. Then John Cantrell (who is on
the board of Novus Ordo Seclorum Systems Inc., and made
arrangements to put it in the company’s closet) borrowed the
monitor because one of the coders who was working on the
latest upgrade of Ordo needed a second screen. Later, Randy
disconnected the keyboard and mouse because, without a
monitor, only bad information could be fed into the system.
Now it is just a faintly hissing off-white obelisk with no
human interface other than a cyclopean green LED staring out
over a dark landscape of empty pizza boxes.
But there is a thick coaxial cable connecting it to the
Internet. Randy’s computer talks to it for a few moments,
negotiating the terms of a Point-to-Point Protocol, or PPP
connection, and then Randy’s little laptop is part of the
Internet, too; he can send data to Los Altos, and the lonely
computer there, which is named Tombstone, will route it in the
general direction of any of several tens of millions of other
Randy’s machine is a security failure on two fronts. First, unencrypted phone lines have to connect Randy to tombstone. Second, tombstone is sitting in a server closet that anyone can walk into. And it’s not even a rack machine, just a desktop box.
This is not doing much for Avi’s “as long as men are capable of evil” security stance. I can’t buy him leaving that in their network closet, and later events show why.
Later there’s an excerpt claiming S/WAN somehow wraps up his telnet securely, and even namechecks SSH, which in ’99 was ubiquitous in security already but normal Humans didn’t know it. Randy would totally be using ssh, never telnet.
On a UNIX machine, “root” is the name of the most godlike of
all users, the one who can read, erase, or edit any file, who
can run any program, who can sign up new users and terminate
existing ones. So receiving a message from someone who has the
account name “root” is like getting a letter from someone who
has the title “President” or “General” on his letterhead.
Randy’s been root on a few different systems, some of which
were worth tens of millions of dollars, and professional
courtesy demands he at least read this message.
Or, as he notes a couple paragraphs later, any random 14-year-old with a “Finux” box. Who the FUCK sends mail as root? Well, Enoch.
“Sergeant Shaftoe? Do you have an opinion?” Root asks, fixing
Shaftoe with a sober and serious gaze.
Shaftoe says, “This code business is some tricky shit.”
Bobby getting to grips with how everything transmits information.
“I stipulate that this does not make sense,” Randy says.
Eb glares into the distance, not mollified.
“Will you agree with me that the world is full of irrational
people, and crazy situations?”
“Jaaaa—” Eb says guardedly.
“If you and I are going to hack and get paid for it, people
have to hire us, right?”
Eb considers it carefully. “Yes.”
“That means dealing with those people, at some level,
unpleasant as it may be. And accepting a whole lot of other
nonsense, like lawyers and PR people and marketroids. And if
you or I tried to deal with them, we would go out of our
“Most likely, yes.”
Back to my business experience.
And it’s not like this boat has a lot of windows in it. It’s
got no windows at all. Just a periscope that can only be used
by one guy at a time. And so for these guys, the war comes
down to being sealed up in an airtight drum full of shit and
turning valve-wheels and throwing switches on command, and
from time to time maybe some officer comes back and tells them
that they just killed a bunch of guys.
Which of course is the nerd way of fighting, and eventually leads to Star Trek, where the Captain can tell one guy at Helm to fly across the Galaxy and another guy to sterilize a planet while the crew are just walking aimlessly around the corridors in jumpsuits and miniskirts. Then make a joke for the doctor and science officer.
His feeling of disappointment that accompanies this action has
nothing to do with the contents of the safe. He is
disappointed because he has solved the problem, and has gone
back to the baseline state of boredom and low-level irritation
that always comes over him when he’s not doing something that
inherently needs to be done, like picking a lock or breaking a
“Many Net partisans are convinced that the Net is robust
because its lines of communication are spread evenly across
the planet. In fact, as you can see from this graphic, nearly
all intercontinental Web traffic passes through a small number
of choke-points. Typically these choke-points are controlled
and monitored by local governments. Clearly, then, any
Internet application that wants to stand free of governmental
interference is undermined, from the very beginning, by a
fundamental structure problem.”
Good news! Since writing this, all ‘Net traffic is instead owned by a handful of corporations. And still by governments, but that’s very leaky. The CCP has less power in China than AT&T in US.
Dr. Alan Mathison Turing is seated at a table by a window,
sprawled across two or three chairs in what looks like a very
awkward pose but which Waterhouse feels sure is eminently
Huh. The fediverse meme is that sitting cross-chair is bisexual, not gay. Speaking of, the shitty Turing biopic tried to imply he was bi and give him a romance with a female coworker, which does not appear to be in accordance with reality.
Mrs. McTeague (and other old ladies like her all around the
world) does the laundry only because it is her role in the
giant Ejaculation Control Conspiracy which, as Waterhouse is
belatedly realizing, controls the entire planet.
If you knuckle under and become a minion of the ECC, you get
to have a career, a family, kids, wealth, house, pot roasts,
clean laundry, and the respect of all the other ECC minions.
You have to pay dues in the form of chronic nagging sexual
irritation which can only be relieved by, and at the
discretion and convenience of, one person, the person
designated for this role by the ECC: your wife. On the other
hand, if you reject the ECC and its works, you can’t, by
definition, have a family, and your career options are
limited to pimp, gangster, and forty-year enlisted sailor.
… mathematician, software engineer, etc. And of course non-straight people have been doing OK at avoiding this conspiracy for some time now, often more or less openly. Now, is Lawrence just insane from lack of nookie, which the book’s gone to some excess with graphs to demonstrate, or does Neal think this is how the world works?
Despite having Alan Turing, Rudy, and the Shanghai Marines with too many boys around and Bobby not giving a shit, Neal always points like a compass at Catholic one-man-one-woman-til-death marriage. Randy couldn’t have married Charlene because divorce is a mortal sin (fornication merely being a venial sin). He can’t be one with Amy, literally bone America, until he’s expiated his sins, quit masturbating, and made a commitment to be a good Catholic, even if he’s an atheist Catholic.
And in Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist and Juanita, with her boss… whatshisface… as the priest stand-in, and Da5id as the Jewish fake boyfriend.
The Filipinos and later Goto Dengo are Good and Reject Evil because they’re Christian and Catholic in particular. I’m surprised Neal doesn’t bring up the Koreans more in the present of this or later books, because the Christians supported by foreign powers became South Korea’s ruling class.
Goto Dengo gawks.
I have an immediate “where is the label ‘Dengo’ defined?” response to his name, every single time I read it. And Neal knows it has that effect; he’s not a great programmer but he’s done some Perl and such. So it’s either intentionally annoying and out of context, which makes no sense, or he’s trying to say something with it, and I don’t get it.
And “gawk” being GNU awk makes me narrow my eyes at Neal again, too.
“Well the short answer is that we won because the Germans worshipped Ares and we worshipped Athena.”
So… long breath… Pretty much Root’s entire lecture on the Greek gods has this model of them being patterns of existing things that people look for, which is fine as motivational bullshit spouted by Enoch Root, except that A) it’s exactly backwards, and B) Randy’s a D&D nerd, so he would know as much or more about the Greek & Norse gods as Enoch because they’re fucking fundamental to D&D nerdery.
Athena’s the goddess of all these great arts, because she’s the patron goddess of Athens, and the Athenians thought they were the smoothest, slickest motherfuckers who’d ever stolen fire and not got caught (still do, despite minimal evidence since 146 BCE). So whenever they thought of some way to be clever at someone else’s expense, they turned that into a myth about Athena.
Sparta’s patron was Ares (also Artemis, for the ladies) and he’s portrayed as the meanest, most horrible son of a bitch who literally brings Terror & Panic (Phobos & Deimos) in his wake, because that’s how the Spartans wanted everyone to think of them. They weren’t stupid, their culture was working, they dominated Greece until they sacrificed a lot of their fighting force to stop the Persian invasion. The silly 300 comic and movie, but also tens of thousands more at other battles. Athens won by default, not skill.
They do make good parallels to WWII America and Nazi Germany, since Americans are like Athenians, utterly in love with our own voices (perhaps Narcissus should be our patron god) and how clever we think we are; and Austrians and (less so) Germans think the whole world are lazy weaklings who should be kicked into shape by scary motherfuckers like themselves, but in WWII they phrased it in a mix of Lutheran (despite Hitler being Catholic-ish) and Norse myth.
But America “won” WWII by having better supply lines and an interior homeland that couldn’t be attacked, and letting the Russians fight the Austrian/Germans as long as possible, just dumb manufacturing and sending escorts with our shipping was functional.
Cryptography, Hedy Lamarr’s radio-controlled torpedoes (the skipping torpedoes that Goto Dengo (label not found) barely survives), radar, and nukes were nice bonuses, but the German tech was generally better, which is why we collected and pardoned all their scientists (like SS Sturmbannführer Wehner von Braun) after the war. Their weapons worked, they just had 10% of the material resources and people they needed.
The Japanese were fucked from the start, they didn’t have enough resources or people and couldn’t make allies to literally save their lives, and their science was… better than the Italians? So shooting down Yamamoto is great, except it’s years too late to matter. Nuking Japan is stupidly excessive, but demonstrates power to the Russians and Chinese.
Neal likes to make all these heroics and math important, because that’s the fun story for nerds, but any accountant can work out how WWII goes before a single shot is fired.
Thanks for coming to my TED talk.